Well, dear readers, my Roman Holiday is imminent, making this the last entry in the Countdown to Italy series. I do, however, anticipate a week full of delicious meals, a few of which I might even deem worthy of Headline Foods. Italy Recap anyone? It will probably include lots of gelato glamor shots.
Do you know what’s wrong with a four week Italian cooking course? Absolutely nothing. Except when you get to the last class and realize you don’t want it to end and there is so much more Italian/Puglian/Salento/Lecce cuisine that has not yet been explored. Fortunately Enrica anticipated our despair and threw together a veritable smorgasbord of delicacies with which to send us off. Seriously. Mussels. Two ways. Orecchiette. Two ways. Polpette. One way, but when it comes to meatballs you just need to do it right once.
We started off with the mussels (le cozze – better in Puglia than pretty much anywhere else in the world). After a brief freshness/prep combo lesson (insert knife and carefully slide between the two halves, if the mussel comes apart easily, it’s fresh!), we worked our way through splitting about half of the mussel haul. We then discarded the empty shell halves and laid out the mussels on baking sheets, mussel side up. These were topped with breadcrumb based mixture of olive oil, cheese, minced garlic and onions, and, of course, some sale e pepe. The mussels went into a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes and came out golden brown and delicious.
With one batch of mussels baking, we turned out attention to the other half. We melted about 2 tablespoons of butter in a heavy stockpot, added some minced garlic (I always err on the side of about twice as many cloves as the recipe calls for, so I’ll really just leave the amount of garlic up to the reader), then the mussels and about a cup of white wine. Brought it all to a boil, and steamed the mussels right open (about 5 minutes). These little bites of heaven were served with some fresh lemon wedges to squirt at the diner’s discretion.
The pasta portion of this feast was fairly straightforward. We boiled up some orecchiette, a delightful little ear shaped pasta (orecchiette translates to “little ears”) that is a specialty of Puglia, but has lately entered Italian food vogue. It takes about 9-10 minutes in a pot of salted boiling water to reach al dente. Personally, I don’t tend to look at clocks, and even if I do, pasta cooking time varies by type and brand, so after 6-7 minutes Ijust periodically check the pasta until it is cooked to the desired consistency. Once the orecchiette was cooked, we strained it, returned to the pot, and tossed with some butter. Half of the orecchiette went into a dish with some fresh pesto (which we learned to make the week before), and the other half into a dish with some diced mozzarella and tomatoes. I know I’m not exactly breaking culinary ground when I say this, but fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, as simple as it may sound, CANNOT BE BEAT. It’s such a delicious, versatile combination. They work well individually, together sans garnish, topped with olive oil and balsamic, tossed with pasta, sandwiched between focaccia, baked atop pizza, scrambled with eggs, the list goes on.
The final piece of this meal was by popular demand. On our first day of class, Enrica introduced us to one of the highlights of cucina povera, Maccheroni di Salento. Cucina Povera, or the cuisine of poverty, is a term often applied to the specialties of Puglia and other historically struggling regions. Deriving flavor from the most common and humble ingredients, devising uses for odds and ends and leftovers, cucina povera elevates simplicity to gourmet. Maccheroni di Salento is a hallmark of the Puglian cucina povera, and this kitchen sink-esque casserole features homemade sugo al pomodoro, mortadella, quattro formaggi, ziti, and, among other things, polpette (meatballs). Enrica had made the meatballs ahead of time that first day, but they were so incredible that it was all we could do to not pop ’em straight into our mouths instead of the pasta dish. So, after much pleading, she included them on the menu for our final class and I have never looked at an overdone, softball size glop of meat the same way since. I have recreated these delicate, burst of flavor in every bite, polpette a handful of times, and even indulged in a trip to New York’s latest tunnel vision restaurant concept, The Meatball Shop (along with Katie, my fellow polpette connoisseur and chef in training in Enrica’s kitchen), but really, I don’t think you could ever have too many meatballs. They’re just so simple and delicious. Put a pound of ground beef in a bowl. Dice an onion and a few cloves of garlic and toss them in with the beef. Crack an egg in there. Sprinkle in a handful of breadcrumbs. Salt. Pepper. Wash your hands, and mix it all together. Pour some oil in a skillet so it comes up about 1/2 an inch. Start forming the meat into balls of your desired size (I prefer ping pong ball sized, but then again, I’m partial to ping pong balls). When the oil reaches temperature (just shy of smoking), fry your balls. Then flip ’em and fry the other side. I usually cook them until just shy of the desired doneness, then toss them into a waiting pot of tomato sauce, but they are just as delicious on their own. A meatball might seem easy, but it is a beautiful thing, and as a dear friend once warned me, there is nothing worse than an overcooked meatball. You might as well just toss it in the garbage.
Thank you for joining me on the countdown to Italy. And in case you forgot, this is where I’ll be while you’re reading this: